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U.S. officer takes Down Syndrome school under his wing

BAGHDAD, Iraq—He calls her "just amazing."

She calls him "the first and the best" American.

Theirs is one of the many joyous and fruitful partnerships between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis that are often drowned out by news of hatred and death.

Sahira Mustafa spent 10 years and uncounted sums of her family's money building Iraq's only school for children with Down Syndrome. It's named after her daughter Hiba, who is afflicted with the genetic condition.

Lt. Col. Richard Bowyer runs a heavy artillery battalion in the 1st Armored Division, which means he's in charge of some of the world's most fearsome weapons. But his job these days is to patrol a section of Baghdad—a neighborhood that includes Mustafa's school.

When Bowyer learned about the school a few months ago, his heart leapt a little bit.

His 7-year-old son, Sam, has Down Syndrome.

"It must have been meant to be," Bowyer said, shaking his head and smiling.

Bowyer and his aides quickly decided to take a special interest in Mustafa's school. They visit once a week—often bringing donated supplies—and they are seeking funds to help pay teachers.

"I understand the issues she has, simply because I've dealt with them myself," he said.

Mustafa's husband, Hashim Mezel Monsour, a guided missile expert, was an Iraqi army general until he retired after the Gulf War. They lived in London from 1984—a year after Hiba was born—until 1989. There, Mustafa devoted herself to learning how to raise and educate a Down Syndrome child.

When the family returned to Iraq, Mustafa went to work for a government institute for handicapped children, but she became frustrated with its retrograde approach.

"Iraqis feel ashamed of these kids," she said.

She founded the school in her family's large home. There were four students and one teacher beside herself.

Today, there are a dozen teachers and more than 150 students of all ages. The school has taken over large sections of the house, and the rooms are filled with furniture, learning aides and artwork.

Children with Down Syndrome are mentally and physically impaired, but they can learn and function well. At the Hiba Institute, students study math, English and tae kwan do, among other things.

Selma Sa'ad's brother, Wathik, enrolled and she liked the place so much she signed on as a teacher.

"Before, he had nothing in his life," she said, "He couldn't read, he couldn't talk. Now he's in the second class."

Saddam Hussein's regime left them alone, but the education ministry didn't provide funds. For three years, Mustafa didn't charge tuition for the school, and then in 1996 she began asking those families who could afford it for between $1 and $3 per month. That doesn't cover her costs.

The war has complicated matters because families have less money than they once did. Some don't have cars and can't afford to pay for a taxi to take their children to school.

That's where Bowyer and his men, who are based in Fort Riley, Kansas, come in. They're looking for a school bus. In the mean time, they donate what they can. One day, they found some computers in an underground bunker and brought them over. Another day came a photocopy machine. Then a small television.

"Nobody gave us anything until Mr. Rick came along," Mustafa said.

"She's so diligent about this," Bowyer said. "She saw a need and she's put all her resources to fulfill it."

Bowyer told his relatives at home about the school. They began donating, too.

His wife collected clothes through the main post chapel at Ft. Riley and sent them along. His mother did the same at her church in Winchester, Ken. A dentist friend sent some medical supplies to help Mustafa's other daughter, a dentist who treats the children out of an office in their house.

And Bowyer's stepfather, who runs a racehorse organization in Tennessee, got the group to purchase a $1,000 gift card at Wal Mart.

On Friday, the Bowyer-Mustafa partnership won plaudits at the highest levels. President Bush praised it in a speech to military families at Ft. Stewart, Ga.

"In the Hiba School," the president correctly noted, "the Iraqi children have put up a picture of Sam Bowyer on the wall, to thank him—to thank his dad, to thank our country."

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): downs

Iraq

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